By Joseph Phung
Score: 8 out of 10
Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (also available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Wii)
Not too long ago, 2K Sports’ NHL 2K series was the franchise to beat when it came to hockey video games. Times have changed as the series is now in a rebuilding phase, attempting a return to the glory days.
A big step in the right direction are the pick up and play controls, which make the game much more fun to play. The three available control schemes are much easier to use than in the past.
The Classic setting uses the controller’s buttons; Hybrid is a mix of the controller’s buttons and right analog stick; and Pro Stick Evolution is similar to EA Sports’ NHL 09 default setup.
A nice addition to all three control schemes are the Superstar moves; dekes skilled players can use against defenders and goalies. Yet, thankfully, you won’t see players like George Parros stickhandling their way to the net. A minor complaint, though, is the Spin-o-Rama move can be too effective at times, especially on the default Pro difficulty.
The gameplay in NHL 2K9 is quite realistic. The CPU AI will pin your player to the boards and the number of bodychecks don’t get ridiculously high. Speaking of hits, the new checking engine is fantastic. Not only will smaller players like Martin St-Louis be unable to knock down big guys like Hal Gill, but they’ll actually bounce off them. Another nice touch that adds reality to the game involves lining-up players for hits, if it’s not done correctly, you’re liable to end up colliding with a teammate instead.
Casual hockey fans will definitely find NHL 2K9 appealing as scoring is not difficult. However, more experienced gamers can increase the difficulty and adjust a number of gameplay variables. Also adding to the casual appeal is the new Zamboni mini-game, where you’re given the task of resurfacing the ice during every intermission. It’s fun and much harder than it sounds. Achieving a perfect score takes skill.
Just like last year, the Franchise Mode puts you in control of your favorite team with the goal of winning as many Cups as possible. While it’s functional, there are some issues that hopefully can be fixed through a patch.
One major problem is free agents want too much money, throwing the entire salary structure for a loop and causing players to price themselves right out of the league. By Season 2 of my franchise mode coverboy Rick Nash remained unsigned simply because no team had enough cap room.
The CPU AI is also very trade-happy, leading to absurd trades such as the Canadiens dealing Tomas Plekanec to the Leafs for Ian White. There are also too many season-ending injuries. During Season 1, the Leafs lost five players for the year.
In all, there’s plenty of work to be done in the Franchise Mode.
Luckily, the online mode doesn’t need any work. Gamers can play ranked matches, six vs. six matches and join leagues with almost no lag. It’s also good to see there are two tournaments (Team 2K and the Hockey Hall of Fame) happening right now that gamers can participate in to determine the best of the best.
Graphically, NHL 2K9 looks decent. The arenas and player animations are great, but the player models themselves need to be overhauled, as every player looks thin and most faces are way off. There are some nice graphical touches though, like players growing beards during the playoffs. There’s also and a slew of retro jerseys available for every team.
The game’s TV-style presentation and arena sound effects are impressive, yet the new commentary team of Randy Hahn, Drew Remenda and rinkside reporter John Shrader could have been better. They all sound like they’re reading from a script.
Although NHL 2K9 isn’t the top hockey video game this year, it’s still a fun title. The series is definitely heading in the right direction and just needs to make some improvements and add something innovative to contend next year.
Read the EA Sports NHL 09 review HERE.
Joseph Phung is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. You can read his blog at joe2400.blogspot.com.